The Muddy Middle

Biblical Text: Mark 4:24-36

This is a sermon on a parable, and it is a parable that is unique to the Gospel according to Mark. And parables are way trickier that you think. But this one is pure gospel. In my reading it is not about the reception of the word. All the things about the reception of the word are guaranteed. The seed will be planted. There will be growth. There will be a harvest. It is a parable about the church – or the individual – in between those two great givens of planting and harvesting. There will be growth, “but we know not how.” It’s the middle. It’s a mess. But what you get to witness is the mysterious will of God. That’s what this sermon contemplates. It’s a little different than what I typically preach, but I think it stands.

An Appeal to Heaven

If you read any old books, and by old here I mean anything from roughly 600 AD to 1900 AD, one of the things you realize is that all the authors – even the ones not known for their orthodoxy – know their scriptures. And they appeal or allude to those scriptures in nuanced ways. Ways that we either miss completely, or might even say “nah, that can’t be the allusion.”  I was thinking about that while reflecting on the Old Testament reading for today – Ezekiel 17:22-24 – and the recent flag absurdity.

If you are blessedly unaware of that absurdity, Mrs. Alito, wife of the Supreme Court justice, likes to fly flags.  One of the flags she has flown was the Revolutionary War era “Appeal to Heaven” flag (pasted in somewhere near here.)  It was commissioned by George Washington for the small six boat Continental Navy.  The pine tree was a symbol of New England – Pines being quite common.  The phrase, “An Appeal to Heaven,” is a reference to John Locke.  Locke was the English enlightenment philosopher whose thought probably did more to inspire early America and its governance than anybody else.  Maybe even more than the Bible, although that could be argued.  In this case Locke argued in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, “where the Body of the People, or any single Man, is deprived of their Right, or is under the Exercise of a power without right, and have no Appeal on Earth, there they have a liberty to appeal to Heaven, whenever they judge the Cause of sufficient moment.”  In that quote you can hear such later American phrases as “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”  There is also the foundational American idea of the Social Compact, think the Mayflower Compact. The governments are established to ensure rights.  If those governments deprive citizens of rights, they have broken the compact, and there is a right to “an appeal to heaven” or revolution.

That is all hardcore enlightenment. But Washington paired the sentiment with the image of the tree. Washington liked Biblical tree images.  And they all liked the Old Testament better than the new.  (They all thought they were the new Israel. In Lincoln’s phrase, “a semi-chosen people”.)  Washington would leave the Presidency quoting Micah 4:4, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”   It was his turn to sit under his; His work was complete.  But long before that work was complete, before he even knew if it would be successful, he tied the enlightenment thinking of an appeal to heaven to a lone tree.

God says in Ezekiel 17, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…and under it will dwell every kind of bird…and all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.  I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree…I have spoken, and I will do it.”  I don’t think it is a mighty leap for someone committing treason if it fails, who could easily consider himself a clipping off the top of the mighty British Empire, as making an appeal to heaven for the LORD to lift them up. For the LORD to create a place for every kind of bird under this new order being brought forth.

Washington never fails to tear me up. The greatest man history ever produced.  And as an enlightenment amalgam it isn’t a bad vision. And I almost daily give thanks for being one of Washington’s “distant posterity.” But the sprig is not from any earthly empire.  He is from the remains of Israel.  And the high and lofty mountain is not a glorious capitol, not even the Acropolis or Mt. Zion, but Mt. Calvary.  Our Appeal to Heaven – the eternal appeal to Heaven – free us from our sin wrought chains was answered. The rebellion against Satan, the World and our own flesh not only was started, but was successful.  And under Christ’s branches, every kind may dwell and produce fruit and become noble.

The LORD promised he would do this.  The LORD keeps his promises.

Is God Trustworthy?

Biblical Text: Genesis 3:8-15, Mark 3:20-35

This sermon treats the Genesis text, which is the Adam and Eve fall into sin, and the gospel lesson, which contains two of Jesus’ most interesting phrases (“Binding the strong man” and “the sin against the Holy Spirit”), as something of problem and solution. There is a popular cynical way of reading the fall that my personal taste for farce and dark humor easily fall prey to. And I am in no way a good enough person to completely say it is trash. But a better person than I took me to task. Yes, the pass the buck. But the situation is the first sin. Everything prior, every experience to that point, everybody was completely trustworthy. Everything worked for the good of the neighbor. Imagine the shock the first time it doesn’t. There is no way Adam and Eve fully comprehended what had happened. At best they had some intuition. And part of that intuition would be some type of accountability. Who is most to blame? My fellow human? The serpent? God?

The Gospel Text is the explanation of the proof that God is and always has been trustworthy – the friend of sinners. Jesus has come to bind the strong man. Long bound in the serpent’s forged chains of sin, Jesus has come to be the man that crushed his head. The one that plunders his house. But it is a strange plundering. Because forgiven everything, we can be Stockholm syndrome captives of sin. The door out of the strong man’s house is wide open. But many choose to stay.

Courage and Duty

On the American Calendar June 6th was D-Day and there were plenty of appropriate recognitions of the 80th anniversary of that day.  I read that the last of the Medal of Honor winners passed.  Not many years and it will be that last of the veterans of that war. But on the Church calendar June 5th was a celebration of another guy who must have had the same courage as those who stormed the beaches. Years later, after the eyewitness are gone, it becomes harder to believe in such acts of bravery.  The cynics voice shows up and starts wondering which parts are real and which parts are hagiographic myth. And the story of Boniface of Mainz, Missionary to the Germans fits that.  It also reminds us just how strange the path of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is.

Boniface was born in England, well, not really England, because England didn’t exist yet.  He was born in Wessex around 675 AD.  And in an often repeating story the young man, contrary to his Father’s wishes, became a monk.  When he was roughly 35, about the same age that Luther nails the 95 Theses – old enough to know better, but still too young to care – Boniface sets out with another monk named Willibrord to Frisia, which is far Northern German near the border with the Netherlands. The mission to Frisia was not a success and they returned home. Boniface then goes to Rome, and while in Rome the Pope creates a new diocese, Germania, and appoints Boniface the bishop. 

Now these were the days where Bishops might never even see their own diocese.  But Boniface does the unthinkable, He strikes out to his diocese. Not Frisia, not yet, but to Hesse, which is Mainz and Frankfurt today.   And this is the place of the great Boniface story – felling the Donar Oak or Thor’s Oak, the sacred symbol and worship space of the local pagans. Boniface took a hatchet to the ancient oak.  He used its wood to build his first church.  The region heard the story, was amazed that Thor did nothing to the short monk, and apparently converted in mass. Boniface had a real diocese now; one that he served faithfully for over 30 years turning oak groves into churches, monasteries and schools.

But at the age of 79 Boniface remembered Frisia and set off on one last missionary trip.  He had baptized many and had left their instruction in various of his fellow’s hands as he went on about the region.  Boniface scheduled a larger meeting of all those baptized to be confirmed at a central location. But when he arrived, he encountered not his converts, but a bandit mob looking for the treasures of the great Archbishop. Some of his band wanted to fight, but Boniface refused quoting St. Paul, “be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The great relic of Boniface – which can still be seen today in Mainz –  is a book that was his only defense marked with a sword. The mob found nothing but the word that Boniface had preached.

Pondering the story of Boniface, one repeatedly sees the bedrock of courage and the performance of duty.  But that courage and duty take what might be seen as polar opposite expressions.  Early, the aggressive chopping down of Thor’s Oak.  The removal of the symbol of the current idols.  Late, the acceptance of the only defense being the Word of God and the acceptance of martyrdom.  Courage and duty are not wrote things.  When the appointed time comes, the actions they take might be different.  But the prayer might be that either by our actions or our submission, we might display the courage of the faith and so give witness to the hope that lives in us.  

Remember the Sabbath Day

Biblical Text: Mark 2:23-3:6 (and Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

So this Sunday in the Church year is the one that starts the Long Green season. The festival season, which stretched from Advent through Trinity Sunday (Christmas to Pentecost), is over and another word for this is Ordinary Time. And the first lessons given are interesting as they are on the Sabbath Day. By this time the Easter attendance bump is long past, and most pastors are hoping the Summer lows are not too low. The Festival season gives people extra reasons to attend. The long green season – made longer this year because the moveable feast of Easter was so early – is more like the Christian life. It has its high moments, but most of it is lived in the plain. Which is why I think starting it with a reminder of what the Sabbath is, is a sharp choice.

And as Lutherans we also have a sharp law-gospel distinction to proclaim – completely in tune with Jesus in the gospel lesson – about the Sabbath. In the law the Sabbath is simply about rest. It only demands that nobody in your authority do any normal work. The gospel purpose of that law is that we might draw near to the Lord. And in the promises of Jesus there are a multitude of ways that we can so draw near. The law itself is good and wise, but it doesn’t save. You could spend you day of rest just sitting and check the box. Salvation rests in drawing near to God.

The sermon develops those thoughts through a reflection on how work expands to fill the time, old blue laws, and a meditation about what I think is the Spiritual sickness of the day. It is not that we don’t want a Sabbath, but that our people collectively don’t want this Lord of the Sabbath. And so we get the heavy yoke of the work of the Devil, the World and our own flesh.

Jars of Clay

One of the most powerful images in the entire bible is Paul’s in our Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “we have this treasure in Jars of Clay.”  It so perfectly captures the now and not yet existence of this world. We now have this treasure, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection, life eternal.  We have it. It is all ours in Christ. Yet we have it in jars of clay. Something that can be broken tomorrow, even accidentally. Something that was made for a common purpose.  Something that was not made to last.  The eternal in the temporal. The majestic in the common. The divine in the human.

And Paul continues to bring out the reality of this treasure being in jars of clay.  “We are afflicted in every way.” The treasure that we have does not spare us from suffering.  It does not spare us from having enemies or facing persecution. Neither does it spare us from everyday indignities. Everything that is fallen humanity’s is ours.  Everything except the final blow.  “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.” We have this treasure. Whatever the world might do to the clay jar, the treasure remains.  And if they break the jar, the fragrance spreads out revealing the eternity of Christ in us. Even ground to dust, we shall be called back on that last day.  For we are not crushed.

“Perplexed.” If you run across anyone who says they’ve got it all figured out, run, fast. The faith is always encountering things that just don’t seem right.  The ways of God are not our ways.  The desires of God are not always obvious. The sufferings of His people, if they didn’t perplex you, would be more troublesome. Even the Apostle Paul can be perplexed.  “What about my brothers according to the flesh (Romans 9)?” And if you understand his conclusion to that with complete clarity, please tell me.  The one thing I can tell you is that Paul does not despair.  “Perplexed, but not driven to despair.” Somehow, all Israel will be saved.  “Oh the depths and riches and wisdom and knowledge of God (Romans 11:33).”  Perplexed, not driven to despair.

“Persecuted, but not forsaken. Stuck down, but not destroyed.” It is so easy to give up. Clay is fragile. What it is carrying is more than it was meant to carry. But Christ is with us.  He walked the road first and has not left us.  And not even Satan has a weapon that can destroy us.  We can only destroy ourselves by dumping the treasure of filling ourselves with his lies.

“Carrying around the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.”  God works by death and resurrection.  He is the God of creation and recreation. What he once made good, which has fallen, will be restored in perfection. Now we carry our cross. Not yet, but soon, the groaning of this world shall cease and the Sons of God shall be revealed, made manifest.  Made plain.  The treasure no longer carried in jars of clay, but the life of Jesus manifested in our bodies.  That resurrection body that nothing common to this world may trouble.

We are jars of clay, but we also have the treasure. You don’t get to forget either. So that all the glory belongs to God.  A God who finds the broken and common and bid us move up to a heavenly seat.

Do Your Job

Biblical Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

Recording note: I usually include the reading of the biblical text, but the microphone wasn’t on at the beginning, so the recording is just the sermon this week.

On the secular calendar it is Memorial Day weekend, but on the Church Calendar is was Trinity Sunday. As I think has become a mantra this year “this is the worst calendar.” Christmas on a Monday, Early Easter, Pentecost and Trinity around graduations and secular holidays. I’m a “called servant of the word” so in church I try to give pride of place to the church’s calendar and the reading. Memorial Day was recognized in announcements and prayers. But My 2nd son graduated this past week, so my mind was in that space, and the text is the call of Isaiah. It is perfectly designed to contemplate vocation. And the modern window into that contemplation is a mantra of Coach Bill Belichick, “Do Your Job.” Call it a law and gospel reading of Doing Your Job. Only one of them though can join with Isaiah – “Here I am, send me.”

Sound Words

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Tim. 1:13-14

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod might be the only church that still follows the Trinity Sunday practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed. I’ve never run across it anywhere else and a good number of ministers outside of the LCMS I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of the creed itself. Part of my fascination was simply the language. As a geeky kid, once a year saying something like “the Father infinite, the Son infinite and the Holy Spirit infinite” was an impossible invitation to mystery. I imagine every kid who ever liked math and ran across the Athanasian creed was invited to ponder the infinite. And how I can give you a perfectly valid proof that is completely understandable in simple language that one infinity is bigger than another infinity. (Observe that the numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on are infinite. Observe that 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…and so on are also infinite. The 2nd infinity is bigger than the first. And you can intuitively grasp that.  But what the hell does it mean that one infinity is bigger than another infinity?)  “And yet there are not three infinities, but one infinite.” There are three infinite persons, but there is only one infinite God.

It is not meant to be understood.  If we could understand it, it wouldn’t be God. He is meant to be adored.

And yet in our hearts we have a desire for understanding. The apostle Paul certainly understood that. “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…(Philippians 3:10).”  It is this tension that makes Paul’s letters still sing today. Whatever he was facing he was constantly searching for a way to describe what God is and what he is doing for His people. The way of Love: “I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in tongues of men and of angles, buy have not love…(1 Cor 13).”  The mystery of God’s election and Israel: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.  Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…(Romans 11:32-33).” The way of a man and a woman: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church…(Ephesians 5:32).”  As Paul more or less rightly bragged, “if anyone has reason to boast, I have more (2 Cor 11, Phil 3).”  Yet Paul reaching to know God, always returned to adoration. All theology ends in doxology.  He is meant to be adored.

So what we have in the creeds, and I would say especially in the Athanasian Creed, is a sound pattern of words. And in a religion where one infinite person of the Trinity is sometimes called “The Word of God,” words are important. There is a reason Satan is always changing the definitions of words, attempting to confuse things that God made plain. The creeds are a sound pattern of words. When Satan, the World or our own flesh want to pull some tricky business with us, the creeds are a light in a dark place. When our brains are tired of thinking, the creeds guard the good deposit given to us. They are not The Faith.  They are not the love in Christ Jesus.  They are not even the Holy Spirit that dwells within. These things – faith, love, Spirit – are more important. But faith, love and even the Spirit express themselves in words.  And these are a pattern of sound words.

When our own words fail us, the Scriptures promise that the Spirit intercedes. Think of the creeds as part of that intercession. A pattern of sound words leading us back to adoration. A theology in short, so that we can sing the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessing flow.  Including words…like “this is the catholic faith.”

Dry Bones Clean Cut Off

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Recording Note: Sorry about the voice, might be a little scratchy, especially early. A member was nice enough to get me a bottle of water shortly in. Thought the minor cold had past, but it caught me in the pulpit.

That said, if you can put aside the voice, I think the message is a good one. It is Pentecost day – which is Feast Day of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the world. But I chose the OT lesson. Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Which I think is a timely message for the church of today. We spend a good amount of time talking like Israel. We might feel like Israel in exile. And God does not deny the diagnosis. What he does deny is their vision. Because God is not a God of medical therapy or incremental improvement. God works by death and resurrection. A field of dry bones is exactly what God will work with. This sermon expands on that hope. That God will raise us from our graves and give us our own land. He has promised, He will do it.

Sin, Righteousness and Judgement

And when He comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. – John 16:8

Sometimes there are phrases that just jump off the page and grab the imagination.  I think the one above is one of those phrases. Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. And that phrase is what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will accomplish.  In a world where standards seem to be up for grabs the idea of the Holy Spirit convicting the world about anything seems doubtful. Convicting this world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement is quite the boast.  It is worth pondering those three words and two others in that phrase – convict and world.  What do they mean?

We think of convict purely in a negative legal sense – convicted.  The word used here does have that meaning, but it might be better to remember an older sense of a trial.  The purpose of a trial is to bring to light, to force what was hidden or in the darkness out into the open.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light.  And what will the Holy Spirit force into the open?  The world.  The entire cosmos. John likes that word cosmos. God so loves the cosmos. The Holy Spirit will expose how the world works.

How specifically will the Holy Spirit do this?  The first thing will be concerning sin.  And what is the sin of the world brought into the light? “That they do not believe in me (John 16:9).” The Holy Spirit will expose the fact that the World does not fear, love or trust in God above all things.  That the World fears the mighty.  It loves money and pleasure. It trusts in its own strength.  All of which are temporal.  The day the mighty dies, his plans die with him (Psalm 146:4).  The fool thinks I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones (Luke 12:28), yet tonight my soul is required of me.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light our foolish belief, our disbelief in God.

The Holy Spirit will bring to light righteousness. Jesus’ explanation here might be a little less immediate. “Because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. (John 16:10)”  It is not immediately apparent why the ascended LORD is the Spirit revealing righteousness. I think this is something of an answer to Psalm 24.  That Psalm asserts that the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness of it.  And then it asks “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?…He who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Paslm 24:3-4).” Paul ponders this in Romans 10.  “The righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do Not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend?’”  According to the law we are always worried who could stand before the throne, and the answer is not a single person is righteous.  But Christ the Lamb was worthy to ascend and take the seat at the right hand.  The Holy Spirit bringing to light righteousness is the testimony that Christ sits at the right hand of God, and that our righteousness is dependent not upon our ability to ascend, but upon faith in the one who has ascended.

The Holy Spirit brings to light judgement? Should this place us back into the fear of not ascending? No, because what the Holy Spirit reveals is that “the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11).” The important judgement is not ours, but Satan’s. He’s judged, the deed is done, one little word can fell him.  The sin that is brought to light and confessed has no power over us.  Because the one who sits on the Throne has had mercy, and brings to naught the plans of the evil one, who has been cast out of heaven and can no longer accuse us.

He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. He will testify to the light that shines in the darkness.  A light that the world cannot overcome. In this light is the life of all who receive it.